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Human head transplants? Italian scientists says it's possible

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 3rd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

In what sounds like a science-fiction novel come to life - "Frankenstein," maybe? - an Italian scientist says he is close to being able to transplant one person's head to another human body. Scientist Sergio Canavero says he's come up with the theoretical process to complete the first human head transplant in history. The process would have practical application to those suffering from muscular dystrophy or tetraplegics with widespread organ failure.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Head transplants have been attempted since the 1950s, when Russian scientist Vladimir Demikhov experimented with dogs. American neurosurgeon Robert White conducted a successful head transplant by moving the head of one monkey to the body of another 20 years later. The monkey lived for several days, but because White could not connect the two spinal cords, the monkey eventually died.

Canavero describes in a recent paper a step to connect donor and recipient spinal cords, which is the one component missing from previous procedures as the technology had not yet been invented. "Tomorrow is today," Canavero says. "What was impossible can happen now."

Completing a head transplant is reported to be "incredibly tedious," and the spinal cord fusion hasn't been tested. Despite the procedure's name, the recipient would be receiving a new body, not a new head. Both the body-recipient and the body-donor's heads are severed before the recipient's is attached to a new body.

To complete the procedure, the head would have to be cooled to between 55 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. The two heads must be cut at exactly the same time and in the same operating room. Surgeons then have one hour to connect the head to the donor body, which is also cooled and placed under cardiac arrest.

Canavero's new development to connect the spinal cords is called the GEMINI procedure, during which surgeons cut the cooled spinal cords with extremely sharp blades.

"It is this 'clean cut' the key to spinal cord fusion, in that it allows proximally severed axons to be 'fused' with their distal counterparts," Canavero wrote in his paper.

Chemicals such as polyethylene glycol, or PEG can then be used to immediately fuse the spinal cords. "PEG is easy to administer and has a strong safety record in man," Canavero writes.

Once the spinal cords of the recipient and donor are successfully connected, the body's heart can be restarted, pumping blood into the brain, and "normal temperatures will be reached within minutes."

According to Canavero, if he receives the necessary funding - about $30 million, the surgery would be possible within two years. There is still much work to be done as the spinal cord fusion needs to be tested. He says he has not yet addressed the ethical aspects of the procedure.

Canavero admits the procedure could lead to a moral dilemma. A head transplant could provide a possible cure for those with conditions that leave the brain functioning while affecting the rest of the body, like progressive muscular dystrophies, or even cancer.

"These are a source of huge suffering, with no cure at hand," Canavero writes. People wishing for quick and easy immortality could hypothetically undergo the surgery to acquire a younger body, he says.

"The problem is regulating a procedure that has the power to, I would say, disrupt society," Canavero says.


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